Young adults all over the globe have been forced to cope with potentially devastating effects of COVID-19, whether or not they have actually been diagnosed with the respiratory virus.
Recent articles point to Gen Z (young adults ages 10 – 24) as some of the most heavily impacted individuals. Experts suggest that nearly 1 out of every 6 young adults ages 18 – 29 are currently out of work due to the pandemic, while press coverage details the heartbreaking consequences of widespread internship cancellations facing America’s youngest workers.
Meanwhile, college campuses continue to grapple with a wide range of next steps, including the future of remote learning, campus dorms, collegiate athletics, and more. University leaders promise “dramatic changes to campus life” as an attempt to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus that has infected millions worldwide.
And while everyone has experienced COVID-19 differently, one special group of American young adults has had a particularly unique pandemic: navigating the effects of COVID-19 while living and teaching abroad.
The Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that brings some of the world’s brightest college graduates to Israel for 10 months to live, teach and volunteer. The fellowship connects young adult participants with Israeli teachers and students, embedding them as active members of their host communities during their time overseas. While the program – a partnership between Masa Israel Journey and Israel’s Ministry of Education – helps ensure its fellows are successful in the classroom, preparing for a global pandemic was certainly not on the list of most likely scenarios.
“The pandemic shaped a turning point for the MITF program,” Danna Price, MITF program coordinator wrote in an email interview. “Our fellows were required to quarantine while thousands of miles away from their families. It was difficult, and it was real.”
Ilana Goldstein, a MITF participant from New York, described how the pandemic shaped her experience in an email interview. “Immediately, we had to stop our physical work in our schools and our communities. I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t go volunteer, I couldn’t fulfill my purpose here. That’s hard to handle. But I had to think about my goals as an educator, as a current resident of this country, and as a learner.” Ilana described how she pivoted her work from in-classroom instruction for elementary students to broader outreach efforts. She sought additional opportunities to serve middle school students through informal and conversation-based English lessons, made a YouTube channel with English lessons for asylum seekers, called her students often, participated in online lectures and synagogue services, and even attended the occasional Zoom party.
“Alongside my peers, I changed how I was acting but maintained my aspirations to have an amazing year.” Ilana wrote. “I didn’t want to give the pandemic any opportunity to take away from my experience.”
This creativity and determination were not only noticed and appreciated by Ilana’s students and community, but by MITF staff as well. Danna Price noted that while some young adults did choose to return to their home countries at the outset of the pandemic, the fellows who stayed have made incredible impact in their communities.
“[Not] even a worldwide pandemic could have stopped them! They joined thousands of Israeli teachers and continued their work with their students…They took on the challenge and attended online, weekly webinars, which provided tools and resources on how to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ As the Program Coordinator, I was worried that the strong bonds, meaningful connections and true progress that our fellows made with their students would dwindle, but our fellows defied all odds,” wrote Danna Price.
When those select MITF fellows returned to their home countries, including the United States, the pandemic they faced was very different from Ilana’s and her peers remaining in Israel. Israel imposed nation-wide lockdown restrictions on residents throughout much of the spring, including during the Passover holiday. Movement restrictions, curfews and a mandate to wear face masks in public were some of the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the virus. This was a markedly different approach then the United States, which has largely relied on state governments to define the country’s response.
“I came to Israel to explore, see, and get involved; I was rarely at home…I have never been someone to prefer staying at home as opposed to going on an adventure. The pandemic made me rethink my sense of adventure. Every trip to the supermarket, every lap around my 500-meter radius, I took that as an escapade,” Ilana wrote in her email interview. “My calendar was booked with phone calls, Zoom meetings, and online lectures. Just because the world shut down didn’t mean mine had to.”
MITF is just one example of how organizations have shifted their operations amid the pandemic. COVID-19 related challenges have given grant partners across the Foundation’s portfolio an opportunity to demonstrate their ingenuity and practice creative problem-solving. Jen Ludwig, program partner at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, expressed her admiration at how nimble and responsive the Foundation’s partners have been.
“I have been consistently impressed by how creative and flexible our grant partners have been in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Jewish organizations working through complexities in international contexts. We are so proud to support Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program of MASA Israel Journey through our partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel,” Jen said.
While the pandemic may be far from over, and the impacts of the crisis are still unfolding for Gen Z’ers worldwide, groups like MITF demonstrate what is possible with creativity and determination.